Pens out, pocket translators on: the fight for hangul’s top slotThe hundreds of foreign students from 56 nations packed into an auditorium at Yonsei University last Friday struggled to express their thoughts in a still unfamiliar script: hangul, the Korean alphabet.
They were there for the 14th Annual National Korean Language Writing Contest for Foreign Nationals, hosted by the Institute of Language Research and Education at Yonsei University. The contest was held two days prior to Hangul Day, celebrating the 559th anniversary of the invention of the Korean script by King Sejong in 1446.
Most of the students had to hold a book or electronic dictionary in one hand and a pen in the other to write a poem or an essay in Korean. The essay had to have the theme of “time,” and the poem, “face.”
This year, about 1,200 foreign students from 56 nations, including some students born to Korean parents, participated in the writing contest; just over 700 participants completed the writing assignments.
Their reasons for studying Korean were as diverse as their nationalities.
Maiko Sekiya, 32, from Osaka, came to Korea in late June to study Korean. “I was a copywriter in Japan, but as I got interested in Korean culture and life, I decided to study the language here,” she said.
Although the grammar and some words are similar to Japanese, the pronunciation is very difficult, she added.
Gagarskaya Sveta, 25, from Vladivostok, first learned about the language three years ago, when she met a Korean missionary in Russia. “I studied Korean in order to help missionaries, and worked as an interpreter when I was a college student,” she said.
She came to Korea in March and is now studying at Yonsei University. Asked why she came to Korea even though her Korean is already fluent, she said, “I think it is best to live in a country when studying its language, because that way I can understand its culture and the way of thinking.
“As soon as you understand the Korean culture and the people, it gets much easier to learn the language,” she added.
Havva Gun, 24, came from Turkey two-and-a-half years ago and is now taking classes at Korea University. She said that she has been learning about Korea since she was an elementary student. “We are taught that Korea is our brother country. So I thought that if I studied another Asian language, it should be Korean,” she said.
“The Turkish and Korean languages are very similar in grammar. I can speak Korean while I think in Turkish,” Ms. Gun said. “But its vowels are difficult to discern from each other, for example, ‘ae’ and ‘e.’ My friends and I remember them as close ‘ae’ and open ‘e’.”
“The Korean language has an abundant vocabulary, especially adjectives, so I can express every feeling in it,” she said.
Though a fluent Korean speaker, Ms. Gun declined the gimbap lunch offered the test-takers on Muslim religious grounds. “Not only do I not eat pork, but also I’m not supposed to eat in daylight during Ramadan.”
The test-takers weren’t so sure why Hangul Day was taken off the list of national holidays in 1991.
Tina Kim, 24, born in Brazil to Korean parents, said Hangul Day should be a national holiday again, because hangul is the most original form of writing in the world.
Ms. Gun said that it is important to have it as a national holiday so that both Korean and foreign students will understand the meaning, history and importance of hangul. “Otherwise, they might not even notice that it’s Hangul Day,” she said.
Maud Le Mat, 25, from France, however, said that as long as people celebrate the day and know its meaning, it doesn’t have to be a national holiday. “There are already enough holidays, I think,” she added.
Currently, some lawmakers are trying to get Hangul Day back on the list of national holidays. Five Korean lawmakers including Uri Party representative Shin Ki-nam, who heads the “Gathering to Globalize the Culture of Hangul,” issued a joint statement on Friday that urged the national assembly to pass the revised bill to designate Hangul Day a national holiday.
The lawmakers said in the statement that hangul is the root of the Korean people’s spirit and a symbol of its culture. They added that it does not make sense for the national assembly to oppose the idea on the grounds that there are already many holidays, considering the great value of hangul.
“As Korean culture has become more popular thanks to the hanryu [Korean wave], the number of nations that teach hangul and the number of students learning it has increased,” said Hong Jong-hwa, the director of the Institute. “[Yonsei University] launched the contest to share not only the Korean language but also its culture, tradition and thoughts with the world.”
And the contest winner is...
When her name was called, Larisa Khortseva, 27, couldn’t believe her ears.
“Oh my gosh,” she screamed, when she found out she had won the first prize at the Korean Language Writing Contest for Foreign Nationals.
She was obviously surprised at the result: it took her a while before she came up to the stage to receive the winning trophy and prize money.
Even when on stage, she seemed frozen, standing first behind the award presenter, then next to him, and finally in front of him, but still facing away from the award presenter. It took about five minutes for her to move to the place on stage where she was supposed to stand.
“I never expected to win first prize,” she told the audience in a quaking voice. She was so excited that she couldn’t finish reading her piece to the audience.
“I left the room shortly after I started writing the poem, because I knew many of my friends here speak Korean more fluently than I do,” Ms. Khortseva said in an interview with the JoongAng Daily.
Her piece, titled “The Figure of Life,” said that the figure of life appears on people’s face. “People always think about what they want to be and what they will be in the future, which is still only in their imagination. But people are not interested in looking back on their past or on their current life, which can been seen on their faces,” Ms. Khortseva said.
“Her idea was very creative, using the face as a figure of life,” said Choi Seung-ho, a poet and a juror of the writing contest. “Her expression was splendid and she was able to use Korean to the best effect among the participants.”
Ms. Khortseva, who came to Korea last summer to study Korean, said she has long been interested in Korean culture and history, and when she was in college she even wrote a research paper comparing the different styles of business management in Russia and Korea.
“I like learning Korean old sayings, because they teach me a lot about life, and they’re also fun and easy to remember,” she said.
Her favorite proverb is “grabbing a star in the sky,” that indicates a situation that is almost impossible to realize. “I actually got the star today,” she said, smiling.
by Park Sung-ha